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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

THROWBACK: Guru's "Jazzmatazz Vol. II" review

GURU released his second album in the ”Jazzmatazz” series in the summer of 1995 and to me this eclectic fusion of East Coast hip-hop, jazzy live instrumentation, soul singers and ragga hooks still stands as a testament of the man’s greatness. GURU was a leader in hip-hop; as a rapper from Boston he was pushing the envelope of how true New York hip-hop was supposed to sound together with DJ Premier in Gang Starr, and with the “Jazzmatazz” series he creatively and successfully bridged live jazz and hip-hop. Many hip-hop acts had used samples from the Blue Note and Columbia Jazz catalogues but it was GURU who first incorporated actual instruments to a beat and thereby created the so called “jazz-rap” when he and DJ Premier invited Branford Marsalis to play sax on the Gang Starr classic, “Jazz Thang”. Something that was bound to happen sooner or later for sure, but also something that needed a leader to first take the step and test the waters.

While 1993s “Jazzmatazz Vol. 1” was a short but effective punch (10 songs in 40 minutes), its follow-up almost doubles the length with its 20 tracks clocking in at 74 minutes. It also features a massive amount of guest features, so much in fact that the artwork presents the LP as one being “hosted by GURU” rather than a solo album in its own right. Unlike its predecessor it does not feature jazz instrumentalists exclusively but rather a mix of artists representing jazz, rap, soul and reagge – black music if you will. Names involved include Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Garrett, DJ Premier, Mica Paris, Chaka Khan, Bahamadia, Branford Marsalis, Kool Keith, True Master, Ini Kamoze, Jamiroquai and many more. An all-star line up to say the least but sometimes too many chefs in the kitchen is a recipe for a disastrous and unfocused effort. This is not the case with “Jazzmatazz II: The New Reality” because although its filled to the limit with high profile names from four different musical genres, GURU is always present and ties it all together, making sure the album flows and the sound is cohesive. Despite what the front cover states there’s no doubt that this album is GURU’s, his voice graces every track, he’s been involved with the production and picking the guests and “The New Reality” clearly represents and realizes his vision.

The amazing opener “Lifesaver” kick things off with a laid-back beat with emphasis on a heavy bass line and jazzy sax and vibes (uncredited and probably sampled) floating in and out in the background which puts the artist in the zone. One of GURU’s biggest strengths as an emcee was his ability to touch the listener’s heart and making us relate without sounding forced or corny; I often say that he rapped with more heart than any other rapper when he was at his peak. Here he speaks on life’s ill but also offers a solution, something a lot of rappers fail to dwell on and the sweet-sung vocals of Baybe adds color to the song. “Living in this World” follows a similar pattern with GURU doing his best to educate through his rhymes and Jay Rodriguez and Sweet Sable helps push the song to the next level with the addition of gorgeous flute, clarinet and vocals, respectively. The last verse is a performance that captures everything that makes people quote the MC’s name in G.O.A.T. discussions.

The following two songs are also my two favorites on the entire album; “Looking Through The Darkness” is produced by True Master (of Wu-Tang fame) and stands as one of his finest productions yet. The drum pattern is heavy enough to knock down a wall, with True’s traditional chopped up sample style, here using at least two songs to create one masterpiece – the majestic trumpet and whatever string instrument that is comes off as simply amazing. GURU absolutely tears the beat apart, sounding hyped up and angry as he almost shouts out the verses, a true classic and proof that he was very capable of creating such tracks without help from DJ Premier. But of course one can’t deny the impact he and Preemo’s relationship have had on hip-hop and that pure quality is showcased on “Watch What You Say” where Guru rhymes about the importance of being a role model and embracing that role. Premier’s backdrop has his traditional pounding drums and bass and comes off as a perfect example of “jazz-rap” with the inclusion of a sampled trumpet being looped under the vocals throughout. The young but great saxophonist Branford Marsalis closes the track on a very high note with Chaka Khan wailing intensively. Whereas “Jazzmatazz Vol. 1” was completely separate from his work with DJ Premier, it’s good to have at least one Gang Starr track on this album. And a banging one at that!

Although the LP doesn’t feature jazz artists on each and every song the vibe throughout is that of hip-hop meeting jazz whether that sound is achieved through the use of samples or live instrumentation. GURU is really shining here, strongly influenced by the jazzy and soulful music he allows himself to go deep and often get personal in his verses. The lyrical themes range from a wide array of topics; “For You” is a heartfelt tribute to his family and friends while “Medicine” is a slamming anthem for all the weed heads with Ini Kamoze providing some sweet toasting. The jazz vibe is maintained by absolutely impeccable blowing by the one and only, Mr. Donald Byrd. Byrd also appears on “The Traveler” where the rapper touches on life on the road and all the countries he visited while on tour. “Lost Souls” is another one of those tracks where G rhymes with all his heart, making sure that every word is captured by the listener, while Jamiroquai provides background vocals and instrumentation to great results.

There are so many ill songs on this album that I could just go on describing them all to you but you’d be better off listening to it for yourself. GURU was in peak form between 1994 and 1998 if you ask me, with “Hard to Earn” and “Moment of Truth” speaking for itself but also the little recognized “Jazzmatazz Vol. II: The New Reality” which is a very personal album. For me this is slightly better than its predecessor (which is also a great album however) and besides his work with DJ Premier it stands as the finest solo album he did. When GURU spoke you’d really listen because you could relate to him. He invited you into his world with his words, as a peer and someone that wanted change for the better. The King of Monotone as he called himself, his voice was unique and loaned itself perfectly for jazz inspired music which is one of the reasons why this album wouldn’t have worked with any other rapper. 

To give some critique it is slightly too long, at 74 minutes it could have benefitted from tightening up a bit; maybe cutting off maximally three or four songs. Most of the tracks hold a very high quality though and there is nothing on this disc that’s bad, far from it, but “The Traveler” and “Feel the Music” doesn’t sound as inspired as “Respect the Architect” or “Something in the Past” for example. Yet these are very minor things, overall this album is packed with more heat than the oven door and it’s a goddamn shame that it’s so overlooked and underrated. The singles released from the album came with some now classic remixes that didn’t appear on the album; DJ Premier’s take on “The Lifesaver” and Buckwild’s mix of the Bahamadia featured “Respect the Architect” (both included at the bottom of this post). I recommend you all to pick up “Jazzmatazz Vol. II: The New Reality” in tribute to Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal a.k.a. Keith Elam, we all sure miss you – Rest in peace.

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